24.08.22 Plant People

Georgia Hilmer: Did you grow up with a garden and a relationship to plants?

Natasha Pickowicz: My parents still live in the home that I grew up in, and there’s always some kind of gardening happening. In San Diego, drought is a very real fact of life, so about 20 years ago my parents shifted their landscaping away from water-hungry, non-native plants to more gentle plants that thrive in the dry climate.

There is a long raised bed that runs along the side fence near my mother’s studio. That’s my dad’s area for gardening. When I was growing up, my dad would grow beans, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, herbs. There were always big tomatoes lining the sill above the sink in the kitchen. I loved eating the fresh green beans, raw, from the garden so much that my parents started calling me “green bean girl.”

My mom jokes that she has a “rival” garden in the front yard. Her approach is extremely hands off — a single ravenous fennel plant or lavender bush will take over an entire raised bed, and she doesn’t even care. Their cat Hummus likes to nap in those beds during the day, so his fur always smells like rosemary and anise. My mom is also getting into grafting fruit trees, which I think is fascinating and wish I knew more about. She once shipped me a giant box of branches and leaves from their peach tree because I told her that peach leaves have a coconutty scent and are great in ice cream, custards, and jams. That was a great mail day.

Natasha’s parents Paul Pickowicz and Li Huai at home in their garden in San Diego in the 80s ▪

When you moved into your current apartment (from a few floors away in the same building), was a garden immediately part of your vision for the backyard? Who did you look to for guidance as you planned your own green space?

The garden was basically the only reason why I wanted the apartment. My friend Celeste, who lived there for over nine years before I took it over, did a tremendous amount of work to the space. She lined the perimeter of the yard with rose bushes, pothos ferns, a fig tree. She built three giant raised beds and lined a deep patio with brick. She planted perennials that I enjoy every single spring without lifting a finger—fluffy tulips, daffodils, hyacinth.

It’s my dream city backyard space and I’m so, so lucky to live here. Mostly, I try to do her original vision justice by filling the space with friends in the evenings, cooking meals big and small, bringing a book or my computer outside to work.

Just being here physically has been such a transformative experience. Even if I didn’t have the garden, this yard would have changed my life. To be clear—the garden is not some immaculate utopia. There’s a rotting, leaning shed, a pile of yard compost I cannot seem to keep at bay — an aura of dinginess and chaos. Sometimes I feel a little down when I see other people’s lush, perfectly manicured yards and gardens — it’s so easy to compare yourself to others and feel like you’re worse off, especially if you’re having a challenging season, as I’m experiencing now.

I moved downstairs in December of 2020, after six months of spending most of my time at home in my tiny studio. I had never been confronted with so much alone time in all my years living in NYC, and once I stopped working in restaurants I started feeling, for the first time in my adult life, that I had time to pursue other interests.

I had never really had “hobbies” before — part of what is so dizzying and problematic about the restaurant industry is how all-consuming it is, how it selfishly asks for all of you. No one has hobbies (not to mention the struggle to maintain personal relationships) because you’re expected to be madly, passionately dedicated to your work. You pride yourself on your myopic, one-dimensional lifestyle. You really think you are lucky to be subsumed, willingly, into work. But what if you lose your job? All of a sudden it became: Oh I can cook for myself now? Read books for fun? Go on walks? Adopt a cat? Learning how to garden was part of a deliberate decision to cultivate a new skill — a reprieve from work, from the stressors of thinking about money, or the pressures of being “good” at something.

It felt really overwhelming to start. I didn’t know where to begin. Advice from friends was absolutely essential—not just in sharing tips and strategies, but also the gift of so many seeds and starts to get me going. Growing those plants honors those relationships. Every harvest is a reminder of that person in my life.

Can you describe what you’ve got growing right now? Are there any particular plant victories or struggles you’ve been facing as the season gets going?

Nothing can humble you like gardening. The learning curve has been steep and immense. Honestly, I still feel like I don’t know anything. Between the weather conditions, the quality of the soil, rainfall and sunlight, the bugs that are beautiful or infuriating or deceptive, gardening surprises me every single day. Every harvest, no matter how small, feels like an actual miracle. But the heartbreak. There is so much heartbreak! Giant zucchini vines felled by a single vine borer in less than 24 hours. Squirrels, birds, and even rats have their sights set on tomatoes, figs, beans, you name it. The white flies, the mildew, the rot, the mosquitos.

And even if you think you’re doing everything right, a plant may not flower or produce fruit or act in the way that you thought you might. I can get overwhelmed by all the variables, so I’m learning to trust in the plants, to feel in my soul that they want to grow and thrive, and to also surrender myself to the process, to nature, and to time.

I love April — the planning and preparations, the blank slate of a garden, all that unmet potential. Those magical early season moments: spying the first sprout pushing through the soil. Spotting little flowers getting pollinated by bees. A spray of roses against the fence. I love May and June. There aren’t bugs yet and those first two months are just pure pleasure and fresh beginnings. July was hard. There’s less rain, sometimes I’m watering twice in one day. I don’t have water access in the back, so I fill up two giant buckets in my bathtub and walk them outside. Even when I’m dreading those waterings, once I’m outside my irritation completely disappears. You lose yourself in the task at hand.

What kind of a gardener are you: the hyper-organized meticulous perfectionist, the devil may care wild child, or the set it and forget it passive person?

I think my approach to gardening is a combination of both my mom and my dad. I crave some degree of control and structure, like my dad, but ultimately gardening is just for pleasure and I let things get a little wild and loose, like my mom. People assume that I must be some super-organized, fastidious gardener because in my professional life I’m a pastry chef that loves to plan and sketch diagrams and write lists. But gardening is my hobby, and I want it to feel fun and loose and free. I had to give myself permission to feel relaxed about it.

I’m very disorganized and emotional about what I plant and why. There is no plan. My gardening philosophy is “one of everything, please.” I want to try it all and see what works. At farmer’s markets or nurseries I buy what I think looks beautiful or sounds unusual. I have artichokes, Japanese burdock, fairytale eggplant, pattypan squash, purple cabbages, rainbow chard, shishito peppers, sungold tomatoes. I plant a lot of herbs and flowers to encourage bees and cross-pollination, and a lot of these plants are natural mosquito and pest repellents too.

As a society we are so obsessed with “optimizing” results, maximizing yields, seeing a high return. For me gardening is more about the journey, not the destination. It’s the quiet mornings with bees and butterflies in the shade. It’s late afternoon sweaty weeding sessions. It’s perceiving every single inch of your space in a way that you never have before. Even though I’m in my second year of gardening, my garden feels less productive and prolific in its yields. Everything is a little harder and more inexplicable even though I allegedly “know” more this year. You invest so much of yourself in the outcomes, you feel responsible for how these plants do. And then the watermelon sprout dies, or the eggplant shrivels up, or a worm eats your cabbages.

Mostly I just try to set plants up for success by talking to friends and using common sense — the tall plants go in the back, the vining plants grow against a fence, citronella absolutely everywhere to help with bugs. So there’s a little structure, but not much.

Books like An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler really opened my eyes to the possibilities of minimizing food waste and maximizing flavor by using the remnants of one meal to start the next and taking advantage of all the edible parts of an ingredient. I know you live by a similar ethos — your soup mother concept being the ultimate embodiment. Has growing vegetables added a dimension to your food philosophy? In what ways has the garden shaped your cooking?

Honestly, my garden doesn’t produce enough for me to have to work too hard to process it all. Sometimes I call my garden “salad for one” because most mornings the harvest is just enough for me to make one beautiful salad. I call that tangle my gardener’s misticanza: it’s a mix of small, tender greens (like chard, kale, arugula, beet greens), edible flowers (I love chive and nasturtium blossoms) and plenty of torn herbs (mint, basil, parsley, cilantro). So there is very little opportunity for waste. I feel so proud of the things that I do grow that I often like to give them the spotlight—tiny tomatoes dotting a piece of toast, a frilly squash blossom garnishing a bowl of spaghetti.

Beyond shaping my approach to cooking, gardening offers me a way to reshape how I give to others. Usually it’s a little something I’ve made, like a purple shiso syrup, or a jar of dill pickles, or candied rose petals. Right now, I love giving friends a bouquet of “sleepy time” plants, like bronze fennel, hyssop, tulsi, lavender, peppermint, and catnip, all mixed together. I instruct friends to cover the herbs with hot water, steep for 10 minutes, and strain. A mug of that tea is so nourishing after a long boozy dinner party.

Can you talk about your forthcoming cookbook? I know you photographed a whole cake section in your backyard! And you shot other parts at your childhood home in San Diego. What was that experience like?

Styling and producing the shoots for my cookbook have been some of the most intense and incredible experiences of my life! The text is full of stories about my childhood and family, my social justice work and bake sales, and of course, the recipes that are meaningful to me.

As for shooting at home, I was blown away at how expensive the photo shoot can be for the author. You pay for absolutely everything: the photographers, prop stylists, assistants, ingredients, props, travel and lodging, not to mention the cost of renting a studio, which can cost thousands of dollars a day in NYC. I approached my parents about shooting in their home—my childhood home!—and I’m so lucky that they said yes. They’ve been so supportive with this whole project. (My mom is even illustrating the book!)

My hope is that shooting in both the home I grew up in and the apartment that I currently occupy will give the book the texture and emotional depth that a sterile, anonymous studio could not do. When we shot at my place in NYC, it was still only the very beginning of spring, so there wasn’t much in the garden. I decorated my layer cakes with sticks, branches, and seeds I found in the yard. The lilac tree was in full bloom; I knew we had to document its splendor. It makes me so happy to think that when people open the book, they will see an array of layer cakes decorated entirely with what I had in the garden that day.

What are you eating and craving lately?

My boyfriend and I keep something we call the “endless pickle jar.” We make a giant pot of brine (equal parts vinegar and water, with sugar and salt mixed in until it feels right) and pour it into a jar. Then we thinly slice vegetables on a mandolin right into the jar—the key is to slice them really thinly, and to use a mixture of vegetables, like golden beets, radishes, purple carrots, and red onion. That’s how you get the gorgeous jewel tones in your brines. Then we stuff the jar full with fennel fronds, dill pollen, peppercorns, garlic cloves, whatever. These crunchy, bright pickles are incredible on everything, on rice or in sandwiches, for snacking or on top of salads.